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By Walter Shapiro
The topsy-turvy scene would have been impossible to imagine when George W. Bush was in the White House.
Wednesday night was oozing into Thursday morning on the Senate floor as Rand Paul’s lone-wolf filibuster against the president’s drone program had morphed into a larger Republican crusade. In a symbolic blessing by the GOP establishment, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (up for reelection in 2014) had just appeared to affirm his solidarity with libertarian Paul, a recent foe in Kentucky Republican politics.
Suddenly, liberal Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin, one of Barack Obama’s closest friends in Congress, was asking Paul for permission to interrupt his 12-hour filibuster with a question. (In the Senate, by the way, a question is a speech with a brief interrogatory at the end).
Durbin began his “question” by spending several minutes emotionally conjuring up the scene in Washington 11 years ago on Sept. 11. The Illinois Democrat pulled out all the dramatic stops–the smoke billowing across the Potomac from the Pentagon, the panicked evacuation of the Senate, the fighter jets scrambling in the air over Washington and the fourth plane aiming for the Capitol. (Durbin’s speech begins at roughly 12 hours and 7 minutes into the C-SPAN tape.)
This is what Rand Paul had wrought with his Wednesday-to-Thursday talkathon challenging Obama’s policy of conducting assassinations from the air, even against American citizens: McConnell, who had never criticized the most extreme assertions of presidential power under Bush, was suddenly sounding skeptical about aspects of the drone program. And Durbin, who had been a ferocious critic of the Bush administration memos justifying waterboarding, was now channeling Dick Cheney as he evoked the horrors of the worst day in modern American history to put Obama’s drone policies in context.
These then-and-now contrasts during the filibuster were dramatic enough to suggest that most power players in Washington are willing to jettison their principles (such as they are) for liege-like loyalty to a president of their party. With Obama in the White House, it is now the Republicans who are the unexpected guardians of civil liberties and the Democrats who play the 9/11 card.
True believers like Rand Paul represent the rare exception. This is not to lionize the son of Ron Paul, since I vehemently disagree with most of his views on economic policy and civil rights. But the Senate is a far better place with a few legislators animated by a consistent ideology rather than just political tactics.
Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden offered his own courage-from-conviction moment Wednesday when he pointedly joined the band of conservative Republicans who were backstopping Paul on the Senate floor. Unlike Durbin, Wyden had no protect-the-president ulterior motive. He was there solely to add a bipartisan gloss to those demanding oversight of the president’s drone policy. (Prediction: Wyden will not get a hand-written thank-you note from Obama.)
Just imagine the furor of congressional Democrats if Bush had conducted a drone policy on the Obama model. Not only has the president vastly expanded these targeted killings beyond anything envisioned during the Bush-Cheney years, he has also defiantly refused to declassify for public consumption the legal arguments justifying the constitutionality of the program.
Last month NBC News did obtain a leaked copy of a Justice Department white paper summarizing the legal case for the airborne assassination of an American citizen turned terrorist, Anwar al-Awlaki, in Yemen. Like the Bush torture memos, this Obama document depends on a torturous use of the English language. What is especially chilling is an elastic definition of the legal requirement of “imminent threat” to cover virtually anything that an al-Qaida sympathizer is suspected to have done, said or thought since 9/11.
Dating back to Richard Nixon during the Cold War, it has been the Republicans who have wrapped themselves in exaggerated claims of national security threats. As a result, many Democrats live in mortal political fear of being tarred as “soft on terrorism” much as their 20th century counterparts were terrorized by the charge of “soft on Communism.” That is partly why Obama’s drone policy so perfectly fits the political needs of Democrats–lethal without the risk of American casualties.
It was against this backdrop of bipartisan silence that Rand Paul made his sudden decision Wednesday to keep talking as long as he could physically hold the Senate floor (no sitting, no bathroom breaks). Technically, Paul was filibustering the nomination of John Brennan as CIA director. But that was just a pretext: What was really on trial was Obama’s drone policy, especially the targeting of American citizens and whether it could be extended to U.S. soil.
In all likelihood, not even Paul in his most grandiose moments could have imagined how one senator’s determination to keep talking until tomorrow would play in an era of social media.
In the 19th century, the word would spread like wildfire through Washington that an orator like Daniel Webster was on his feet in the Senate. On Wednesday, political junkies and dedicated libertarians were alerted by Twitter and their Facebook feeds that Paul was on his feet conducting an old-fashioned filibuster. And viewed on C-SPAN, the substantive spectacle was oddly hypnotic.
Inadvertently, Paul may have discredited the type of bloodless filibusters that the Republicans have been using with great effect to paralyze the Senate. In reality, it now takes 60 votes (what the Senate rules require to shut off debate) to approve any Obama legislative proposal or to confirm a judicial nominee. Earlier Wednesday, McConnell halted the long-delayed consideration of Caitlin Halligan for the federal bench by trotting out 40 Republicans who support a filibuster.
But what Paul stumbled on is the emotional wallop of an actual filibuster. His logorrhea with a purpose probably will not, in itself, prompt Obama to level with the American people about his drone policy. But by turning the Senate into a Drone’s Club (hat tip: P.G. Wodehouse) for one memorable day and a bit of the morning after, Paul harked back to the bygone era when the Senate actually was the world’s greatest deliberative body.